Archive for 2008

December 4th 2008
Thanks, stranger, and welcome little stranger

Posted under American history & Bodily modification & Gender & the body & women's history

I can’t tell if I admire Alex Kuczynski’s honesty in “Her Body, My Baby,” about her experience with a woman who bore her genetic child through surrogacy, or if I am disturbed by it.  (It’s probably both–via Corrente.)  Her story is familiar–elite thirtysomething career woman and older husband (who is himself on marriage #3 and trying for baby #7) can’t make a baby, so after years of struggling with infertility, they investigated hiring a surrogate to carry their genetic child.  I know that surrogacy is an option available only to the wealthy, with uterus rental rates and associated expenses going for $40,000 to $70,000.  But did she really have to work in all of the allusions to the vacation homes in Idaho and Southampton, N.Y., in addition to the Manhattan apartment?  This splendid isolation seems to have contributed to being surprised and impressed that her surrogate had a computer and knew how to use it:

WHEN WE CAME ACROSS Cathy’s application, we saw that she was by far the most coherent and intelligent of the group. She wrote that she was happily married with three children. Her answers were not handwritten in the tiny allotted spaces; she had downloaded the original questionnaire and typed her responses at thoughtful length. Her attention to detail was heartening. And her computer-generated essay indicated, among other things, a certain level of competence. This gleaned morsel of information made me glad: she must live in a house with a computer and know how to use it. 

It’s as though the world that 85% of us inhabit was a foreign place to Kuczynski.  Patronizing, much?  She seems overjoyed that her surrogate has a college degree, and that two of Cathy’s three children are in college (the other is 11, so there’s hope yet.)  Other parts of the essay are less cringe-worthy and are very insightful, such as her description of the polite fiction maintained by the bio parents and the surrogate and her family that no money is changing hands: 

The fees to the surrogate would be paid out in monthly installments, not in one lump sum at the end. In this way the surrogate would be reimbursed for her monthly gestational responsibilities even if the pregnancy ended in miscarriage. No money ever changes hands directly between the intended parents (I.P.’s in surrogacy speak) and the surrogate. All the money goes into an escrow account set up by Brisman’s office, and a third party pays out the monthly fees. I.P.’s and surrogates are discouraged from discussing money. This is partly to remove the air of commercialism from the proceedings.

.          .           .           .          .          .           .           .          .          .   

While no one volunteering to have our baby was poor, neither were they rich. The $25,000 we would pay would make a significant difference in their lives. Still, in our experience with the surrogacy industry, no one lingered on the topic of money. We encountered the wink-nod rule: Surrogates would never say they were motivated to carry a child for another couple just for money; they were all motivated by altruism. This gentle hypocrisy allows surrogacy to take place. Without it, both sides would have to acknowledge the deep cultural revulsion against attaching a dollar figure to the creation of a human life.

But, of course, surrogacy is work, and work deserves to be compensated.  I’m suspicious of some arguments against surrogacy that hide behind the “sanctity of life” and deny that we can put a price on it, because they end up being arguments that women should volunteer their uteri instead of being compensated for their time, trouble, and discomfort.  Speaking of which, I also liked the fact that Kuczynski admitted enjoying the fact that she avoided the advanced stages of pregnancy:

AS THE MONTHS PASSED, something curious happened: The bigger Cathy was, the more I realized that I was glad — practically euphoric — I was not pregnant. I was in a daze of anticipation, but I was also secretly, curiously, perpetually relieved, unburdened from the sheer physicality of pregnancy. If I could have carried a child to term, I would have. But I carried my 10-pound dog in a BabyBjörn-like harness on hikes, and after an hour my back ached.

Cathy was getting bigger, and the constraints on her grew. I, on the other hand, was happy to exploit my last few months of nonmotherhood by white-water rafting down Level 10 rapids on the Colorado River, racing down a mountain at 60 miles per hour at ski-racing camp, drinking bourbon and going to the Super Bowl.

Still, Kuczynski can’t get past the feeling that her obviously athletic and toned body has failed her, and the feeling that she is marked by it:

AS MUCH AS I TRIED TO FIGHT off the feeling, when I told others that I was expecting a baby — and this child was clearly not coming out of my womb — I would sometimes feel barren, decrepit, desexualized, as if I were branded with a scarlet “I” for “Infertile.” At the height of her pregnancy, Cathy and I embodied several facets of femininity. She could be seen as the fertile, glowing mother-to-be as well as the hemorrhoidal, flatulent, lumpen pregnant woman. I could be the erotic, perennially sensual nullipara, the childbirth virgin, and yet I was also the dried-up crone with a uterus full of twigs. She got rosy cheeks and huge, shiny stretch marks. I went to Bikram yogaand was embarrassed to tell the receptionist — in front of the pregnant 20-something yogini in short shorts — to pull me out of class in case my baby was about to be born out of another woman’s body.

Women are each other’s harshest judges when it comes to decisions about our lives.  To have a child or children, or not?  To create an adulthood around motherhood and mothering one’s children, or an adulthood that embraces other kinds of work beyond parenting (or indeed, avoids parenting without regrets)?  I’m not posting this so that we–you and I, my dear readers–can pounce on Kuczynski and feel for a few satisfying moments as though we are morally superior to her.  I’m posting this because I think it raises interesting questions about class, bodies, and commerce.  (Let’s remember that the New York Times is always publishing stories about white, upper-middle class women’s supposed selfishness and how it’s the ruination of the world, so we should be careful about not taking the bait.)

Honestly, the most disturbing part of the article was when Kuczynski, in an aside, notes that Cathy’s 20 year-old daughter, a college student, “had been an egg donor to help pay her college tuition.”  Also, “Cathy told me that her motivations were not purely financial, although she was frank about the fact that the money would help with her two children in college.”  This family may be an isolated example, but, I wonder:  are working-class and middle-class women and girls being driven to sell reproductive services in order to get themselves and their children through college?  If so, what does it say about what we value in women–their brains or their bodies?  Are women who use the latter to improve the former with the goal of finding work that doesn’t involve their reproductive organs being canny, or are they being used?

I don’t have any answers to these questions.  I didn’t consider selling eggs to get through college, but then, I didn’t have to.  Having and enforcing boundaries around one’s body is a privilege.


December 3rd 2008
Of corpse-kicking and His Irrelevancy

Posted under American history & wankers

Via Corrente, Harold Meyerson wonders in The Washington Post why the peasants havent’t picked up their pitchforks and lighted their torches to storm the Bastille:

So where’s the outrage? Why aren’t demonstrators besieging the White House? Where are the “Welcome to Bushville” signs in those neighborhoods where abandoned homes outnumber the occupied ones?

The answer, I suspect, is that you can only irreversibly give up on a president once. Further catastrophic failures on the president’s part elicit only diminishing returns. Buchanan did nothing while the South seceded: That was it for him. Hoover did nothing as farmers, workers and middle-class America got wiped out: With that, he was beyond rehabilitation. Nixon had Watergate: Enough said. One mega-strike and you’re out.

Bush, however, has had three. He misled us into a nearly endless war of choice to disarm a threat that never really existed. He let a great American city drown. And now he stands by while the economic security of tens of millions of Americans is vanishing.

Yet in the hearts of his countrymen, Bush’s place is already fixed. Even before the financial collapse, he was in the ninth circle of presidential hell, with Buchanan and Hoover. At his own party’s national convention this summer, his was the name that no one dared speak. And so, though his mishandling of the economy is criminally inept, he is being spared one more outbreak of public rage by two countervailing public sentiments: Americans’ relief that he soon will be gone and their kind reluctance to kick a corpse.

Your political grave? I'm dancing on it!

I think Meyerson is right that “you can only irreversibly give up on a president once.”  I think for most Americans, who (unaccountably, in my opinion) seem to have supported Bush’s drive for war in Iraq in 2002-03, Hurricane Katrina was the decisive moment when they saw that Emperor C+ Augustus had no clothes.  And if you’ll recall, this impression was only magnified when the devastation of New Orleans was immediately followed by the laughably disastrous nomination of Harriet Miers for the Supreme Court.  This recession/depression is just the latest turd in the punchbowl of the Bush presidency.  Since most of us stopped drinking it years ago–if indeed we ever bothered to taste a draught–it’s beside the point.

What do you think?  Do Presidents have only one opportunity to blow it, or can you think of instances when the American people granted a mulligan to U.S. Presidents to blow it again?  Are Americans in fact too kind to kick a corpse?  I’m not sure I am too kind, but I’m only too happy to see this judgment of the Bush presidency rendered even before his presidency is officially over.  Welcome to the Pantheon of failed presidencies, Your Irrelevancy!  John Adams and James Buchanan sure are happy to see you.


December 2nd 2008
How (not) to apply to graduate school

Posted under American history & European history & jobs & students


I realize this post is a little late to help anyone who wants to start graduate school in the fall of 2009.  But then, I also realize that most of my readers have either already been admitted to graduate school, or they have no intention ever of going (back) to graduate school.  Nevertheless, Tenured Radical’s post yesterday about how she spent a full hour writing dozens of letters of recommendation for her students (and then some, since it sounds like she tailors each individual letter before she sends it to multiple institutions), and then was rewarded for her industry with grave bodily injuries as she chucked the last of them into a U.S.P.S. mailbox, brought on flashbacks from my experience three years ago as the Graduate Studies chair of my department.

Undergraduate students don’t know how much work most of us poor faculty members put into their educations and advancement through instruments like letters of recommendation.  This post is designed to help prospective graduate students in the humanities avoid the common mistakes I’ve seen in applications, and perhaps to guide advisers of undergraduate students who are applying to graduate school.  Please, students:  put at least as much thought into your graduate application as your poor professors are putting into their letters of recommendation!

  1. Know what you want to accomplish in graduate school and with the degree you will eventually earn.  Students, don’t let your mother call the Grad Studies chair to inquire on your behalf, and mothers, don’t bother calling.  (Seriously!  I speak from unpleasant experience.)  Don’t write in your essay that you’re applying to grad school because as a child you enjoyed watching World War II movies with your grandfather.  (I’ve seen it more than once in our applications.)  Graduate school is not just more college–it’s professional training, and you need to have an end in mind as to what you want to do as a professional historian.
  2. State those goals clearly in your application essay.  See #3 for more details.
  3. And most importantly of all, make sure that the program/s you are applying to are suitable for helping you achieve your goals, and take the time to connect those dots in your application essay.  You will want to connect your interests to individual faculty members, and explain how the only logical next step in your educational career is to come to (for example) Baa Ram U. to work with specific faculty members here.  The graduate program in my department at Baa Ram U. is an M.A. program with historic strengths in public history, U.S. Western history, and an emerging strength in environmental history.  Our website thoughtfully describes all of the faculty and their research and teaching specialties, and clearly states the emphases of our M.A. program, offers checksheets that show the entire curriculum you’ll be expected to complete, and they also indicate the kinds of graduate courses we offer on a regular basis.  Don’t apply to our graduate program if you want to do Classics (Baa Ram U. is the Aggie school, and doesn’t offer Latin, let alone Greek!), medieval European history (again–no Latin or Greek here), or anything that’s not modern U.S. or European history.  There is a comprehensive Ph.D. program up the road–please send your applications there, since it has the language classes, the coursework, and the library you will need to achieve your goals.  We don’t.  (Although the other department has its particular strengths and weaknesses, so take care to tailor your application there too.)

I can say unequivocally that in my year as GSC, we admitted every single student who managed to accomplish steps 1, 2, and 3.

I don’t mean to sound like an old crank (much!) complaining about “kids these days…”  I think in most cases they don’t understand the difference between choosing a graduate program versus college applications, and they have either been poorly advised, or they haven’t bothered to get any advice before sending out applications.  But, I must say that I’m amazed that a generation that’s supposedly so tech savvy doesn’t take advantage of the wealth of information most graduate programs have on the web.  Back in the old days, when I applied to graduate school, we had only the American Historical Association’s Directory of History Departments, which was published annually, and the card catalog in our college libraries to help us find the books published by the faculty we wanted to study with.  (And don’t even get me started about how we used to have to find articles and book reviews, kids!  Don’t wait until next Thanksgiving to thank the god of your choice for JSTOR, Academic Search Premier, American History and Life, Historical Abstracts, Project Muse, History Cooperative, and all of the other on-line services and the databases that connect us to them.)

Here endth the lesson.  Does the spirit move anyone else in the congregation to testify?  What other advice would you faculty offer to students applying to graduate school?  What do you students think would make graduate applications easier and more transparent?  (Tenured Radical’s call for a common grad school applicationand other common-sense reforms looks good to me.)  TR, this Pisco Sour is for you to speed your healing.  Dog bless.

UPDATE, later this morning:  Wow–that was fast!  A reader, “A,” has written in asking for yet more advice.  To wit:  “I read your article today at the perfect time! I am applying to graduate school and law school and wanted to get thank-you presents for the people writing my letters of recommendation (there are a lot of letters). I was considering Starbucks gift cards and baking cookies, but I am not super well-versed in this area of etiquette. Also, since some of the letters are not due until Feb. 15, is it better to gift now (some letters have gone out) or when everything is done? Any advice is much appreciated!”

Are you like me, dear readers, in being impressed by this student’s thoughtfulness?  As to the question–to gift now, or to gift later?–I’d say that it doesn’t matter much.  Coffee and cookies is an embarrassment of riches that would be welcome any time at Historiann HQ, so I’d say don’t worry about the timing.  Just be sure to let everyone know where you got in with their generous assistance, and what your plans are for next year after you’ve considered all of your options.  Good luck to you, A.!  And readers, let us know if you’ve got other ideas.

UPDATE II, March 18, 2009:  Notorious, Ph.D., Girl Scholar has added more don’ts to remember based on her review of the applications she has seen recently.  Check out the comments, too, for more good advice!


December 1st 2008
Chutes and ladders: Historiann graduates! edition

Posted under jobs & students

As many of you may know, New Kid on the Hallway has left academia to start law school.  She’s had several interesting posts this fall on the transition from being the professor to being a student again, but this one sums up what I’ve always thought must be the most difficult aspect of becoming a student again:  accepting the role of being a follower in the class rather than the leader.  (Interestingly, New Kid is not the only Ph.D. in her 1L class, and I can report that that was also the case with another friend of mine, a microbiology Ph.D. who recently went to law school to make another career for herself.)

I have a recurring nightmare–perhaps many of you have a version of it, too–which is that I’m back in my hometown for some reason (something that rarely happens, since my parents haven’t lived there for fifteen years) and–even stranger–visiting my old high school.  I’m informed there that I didn’t take all of the required classes, so I didn’t actually graduate from high school.  For some reason comprehensible only in dream-world logic, this imperils the legitimacy of my undergraduate and graduate degrees as well, so I have to go back to this high school and complete the missing credits.  I try to explain that I’m far too busy with my job and where life has taken me in the subsequent 22 years since my apparently fake high school graduation, but the authorities at S.S.H.S. still have the bureaucratic muscle to force me back to class.  (I have another version of this dream when I’m informed I have to return to college for another semester, but it’s a fun and happy dream because I loved college, and would kill to live in a dorm and have someone else cook and clean for me again.  On the contrary, I have no affection whatsoever for my high school days.)

Has this ever happened to you, either in a nightmare or in reality, when you went back to re-train in another field?  (Maybe I should just go get a DVD  of Old School, or the “Donna Martin graduates!” episode of Beverly Hills 90210 have a few laughs, and get over it.)


November 30th 2008
A churlish Republican and a childish media: notes from the Colorado 4th

Posted under American history & GLBTQ & local news & wankers & women's history

We’ve reported here before on the failure of Marilyn Musgrave, our soon to be ex-congresswoman from the 4th Congressional district in Northern Colorado, to concede the election she lost nearly four weeks ago and congratulate the woman who rendered her such a humiliating defeat.  Here on the last day of November, Musgrave is still in hiding, she won’t speak to the media in spite of the fact that she’s (lamentably) still our U.S. Representative, and has yet to telephone the victor to pledge her support.  The Denver Post today published an editorial summing all of this up, “A failure to bow out gracefully, or at all“:

Is Musgrave really going to disappear from politics after six years in Congress without congratulating Markey or even thanking constituents?

Come on, Congresswoman, you’re better than that.  (Ed. note:  No, apparently she isn’t, and there were thousands of us who had her figured out in 2002, when she first ran for Congress.  Drop the pretense that there was evidence that she was anything but a thin-skinned water-carrier for the hate-the-gays movement and the Bush administration.)

There is no doubt it was an ugly campaign. By sponsoring constitutional amendments in 2003 and 2004 that would have restricted marriage to one man and one woman, she put a target on her back.

Furthermore, she was widely seen as being closely aligned with President Bush, whose approval ratings hovered around 25 percent as the election approached.

Yes, it was a bad year for Republicans, and much of Musgrave’s problems were of her own making. But Musgrave also was targeted by independent groups who spent millions attacking the Weld County native.

.        .       .       .       .       .       .

Walking off in a snit isn’t becoming the office or the three-term incumbent.

.        .       .       .       .       .       .

It’s understandable to be upset, even embarrassed. But we expect at least a modicum of civility from our elected officials, even those who get whipped at the polls.

Well, said, Denver Post!  But, something was missing from your lecture to Congresswoman Musgrave:  the fact that you endorsed her re-election in October!  I didn’t see your apology to the people of the 4th CD for endorsing such a loser, Denver Post.  I know it would be so much more convenient for this to go down the memory hole, but historians are such pedants, aren’t we?

No Colorado politician has worked harder to change her image in recent years than Republican Marilyn Musgrave, the three-term incumbent in eastern Colorado’s sprawling 4th Congressional District.

The Post opposed Musgrave in her first three races, but we believe Marilyn Version 2.1 is improved enough to rate re-election over Democrat Betsy Markey, a Fort Collins businesswoman and former aide to Sen. Ken Salazar who is making her first run for elective office.

During her first term, we were highly critical of Musgrave for devoting far too much time to divisive social issues of no practical concern for her district, especially a failed attempt to amend the U.S. Constitution to ban same-sex marriage.

Hard-pressed farmers in Yuma County are more interested in fixing their decaying farm-to-market roads and in new jobs from alternative energy than in the private lives of gays in Massachusetts. But after Democratic foes Stan Matsunaka and Angie Paccione came close to dethroning her, Musgrave got the message. In recent years, she has worked hard on the Agriculture and Small Business committees and fought to increase exports of Colorado beef and grain.

Who ever could have guessed that someone who so aggressively campaigned to deprive American citizens of equal rights would be such a sore loser?  Well, duh, I say.  Here’s the company she keeps historically as a crusader against other Americans’ constitutional rights:  the proslavery movement, the anti-women’s suffrage movement, the Nativists, the KKK, and the anti-Civil Rights movement, just for starters–a veritable American Pantheon of haters and sore losers if I ever saw one.  Need I continue? 

But this amnesia is par for the course at the Denver Post, and I suspect most major newspapersIt endorsed George Bush for re-election in 2004 in a psychotically stupid editorial, and then ran editorial after editorial during his second term chronicling his misjudgements and failures:  on the mismanagement of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Social Security reform, Hurricane Katrina, you name it.  Never once did the Post acknowledge its endorsement of Bush or apologize to its readership As Bob Somerby says at the Daily Howler all the time, the media will never, ever tell the truth about the role that it plays in our politics.  Never.


November 28th 2008
Black Friday blogging: agony column updates

Posted under conferences & jobs & publication

Before I dive into that pile of grading I’ve successfully avoided until today, I thought you might enjoy a few updates from this fall term’s series of agony columns:

  • Tenured Tammy, if you’ll recall, was applying for jobs to solve her two-body problem, with the additional wrinkle that she is a tenured associate professor, and her husband is a grad student applying for his first job this year.  You advised her to be vague in her application letters as to why she is applying for assistant professor jobs again, and you also urged her to seek accommodation at her university.  She writes that her husband had a telephone interview with one of the institutions they both applied to, but “it doesn’t sound like they’ll be issuing him an invitation to interview on campus.”  She reports the excellent news that “there has been some movement [at my university] regarding a spousal hire for my husband.  I’m not sure exactly what they’ll be able to do, but the Provost called [my department chair] yesterday and was very receptive to the idea, as was the dean of the college [my husband would work in].  There are still a lot of hoops to go through, and its very possible the department may not want him (which I totally respect) but I’m so encouraged to know that the administration at [my university] is amendable to the idea of spousal hires.”  What a concept!  Would that Baa Ram U. would follow your university’s example, Tammy.
  • Busted Barry was applying selectively for jobs this year and didn’t want to buy an airplane ticket for prospective AHA interviews, and you advised him not to advertise that in his application letter.  He followed your advice, but sadly, he wrote a few weeks ago to say that he has already been notified that he’s not a semi-finalist.
  • Worried Wendy, as you’ll recall, was dismayed to hear someone read back an article she published two years ago in the first half of a conference paper recently.  She has not e-mailed or otherwise contacted the person who “borrowed” her research without acknowledgement.
  • Demoralized Debby, whose first tenure-track appointment ended badly but who is considering going back on the academic job market, writes that “the whole thread was really helpful, even the dismaying stuff.  I feel like I have a more definite plan of action: try to get a book contract but not wait ’til it’s out, and focus more on teaching.   I don’t want to adjunct, but a course or two might be bearable if it would really help the CV.  I’m meeting with a sane ally from my former university soon who’s an administrator and a stellar teacher; I’ll sound her out about teaching, too.”

Your thoughts, dear readers?  Since most of these questions revolve around the job market, let’s make this an open thread for people on the job market to let us know how it looks out there.  Have you bought your ticket to go to the annual meetings of the Modern Language Association (in San Francisco this year) or American Historical Association (in New York?)  Who really looks forward to those job fair conferences, anyway?


November 27th 2008
Thanksgiving blogging, part III: recipe open thread

Posted under American history & fluff & women's history

Historiann, hard at work in her kitchen

Good morning!  (I think it’s still morning in America, even in Nova Scotia.)  Yesterday, I made a pecan pie and a pumpkin pie, using recipes from the Joy of Cooking (1964 edition) and The L.L. Bean Book of New New England Cookery (1987), respectively.  I’ve been up cooking away in my kitchen, de-brining the turkey and preparing a mountain of dressing to be cooked alongside the turkey.  I found this extremely delicious traditional-style recipe for dressing last year, and I’m sticking with it, also from The L.L. Bean Book:

Sausage and Chestnut Stuffing (Dressing):

1 pound chestnuts

2 T butter

1 1/2 C chicken broth

2 T Madeira or sherry

1/2 pound country sausage (I use a full pound.  Hey–it’s a holiday!)

4 medium onions, chopped

2 1/2 C chopped celery

1 t dried thyme

1 t dried sage, crumbled (I use fresh, and more of it than is called for here.)

1/4 C chopped parsley

7 C torn bread crumbs, somewhat stale

salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

To prepare chestnuts:  Cut a cross in the chestnuts and put them in a saucepan with cold water to cover.  Bring to a boil and boil for 1 minute.  Remove a few at a time and peel off both the outer and inner skin while they are still hot.  Braise the peeled chestnuts in a heavy saucepan with the butter, broth, and Madeira, and gently simmer 30-40 minutes until the liquid is absorbed.

Meanwhile, cook the sausage meat, breaking it up with a fork, until it has released its fat, about 8-10 minutes.  Remove with a slotted spoon to a bowl, and pour off all but 1/4 cup of the fat.  Saute the onions and celery in the fat about 5 minutes, then add them to the bowl along with the seasonings, bread crumbs, and cooked chestnuts.  Season to taste with salt and pepper. 

Makes about 10 cups

The chestnuts, as always, are a big hassle, but they make your whole house smell really great when they’re simmering away in Madeira, stock, and butter.  It will smell very festive, even if that’s all you’re contributing to Thanksgiving dinner!

Other participants in this recipe exchange include Notorious, Ph.D. and Clio Bluestocking, who have already posted their holiday recipes over at their places (butternut squash lasagna and holiday margaritas, respectively!)  Dr. Crazy has posted her sweet potato gratin recipe–please post the brussels sprouts recipe too!  And Roxie’s World has posted a delish sounding “Cranberry, Cherry, and Walnut Chutney,” so we’ve covered all of the major Thanksgiving food groups:  turkey and pies (in my previous posts this week), and now squash, dressing, potatoes, cranberries, and alcohol.  I’m copying a recipe that was pasted into another thread by Indyanna, and hope more of you will post your holiday favorites here later today, if you get a chance to go on-line.  (And please, if others of you have posted recipes on your blogs, send a trackback or leave a link in the comments below!)

And if you’re not cooking, check out this very cool website for school-aged children about the First Thanksgiving, sponsored by Plimoth Plantation, the excellent re-creation of the 1627 English village and Wampanoag homesite.  It has evolved into one of the best public history sites in the United States.  Happy
Thanksgiving, everybody!

See also Thanksgiving Blogging part I and part II for other dressing and pie recipes.


November 25th 2008
Thanksgiving blogging, part II: “beat all smartly together.”

Posted under American history & fluff & women's history

paring and slicing pumpkins for stewing

Paring and slicing pumpkins for stewing at Plimoth Plantation

(Don’t miss Thanksgiving blogging part I:  “this depends intirely on the goodness of your fire.”  Several commenters in that thread–Susan, Notorious Ph.D., Dr. Crazy, and Clio Bluestocking offered up delicious notes from their prospective feasts, and Notorious suggested that we all post recipes on Thanksgiving day from our own meal preparations.  Don’t miss out–post a recipe on your blog too, and if you don’t have a blog, post it in the comments thread on my blog!)

What would our Thanksgiving table be without a pumpkin pie?  Well, the version we eat is a modern invention, in its sweetness and richness–probably less than 200 years old.  The people in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1621 undoubtedly ate pumpkins and other winter squashes at their great feast of roasted fowl and venison, but it was probably served unsweetened and just simply “stewed,” with perhaps some salt and butter to enrich it, if they were fortunate.

I looked in vain to find a recipe for pumpkin pie in Mrs. Carter’s cookbook, The Frugal Housewife, or Complete Woman Cook (1772 edition), which was published in London and Boston, and I presume written by an Englishwoman.  So I had to look to Amelia Simmons’ American Cookery (Hartford, 1796) to find recipes that deal specifically with New World ingredients like squashes and corn meal.  Here are two Native American ingredients transformed by the English love for all things sweetened and turned into a pudding-like consistency.  The first offers three versions for Indian Pudding, which is a basically hasty pudding (cornmeal mush) sweetened and enriched with butter and eggs.  Here they are, in declining order of richness and tastiness, in my opinion (p. 26):

A Nice Indian Pudding.

No. 1.  3 pints scalded milk, 7 spoons fine Indian meal, stir well together while hot, let stand till cooled; add 7 eggs, half pound of raisins, 4 ounces butter, spice and sugar, bake one and half hour.

No. 2, 3 pints scalded milk to one pint meal salted; cool, add 2 eggs, 4 ounces butter, sugar or molasses and spice q. l. it will require two and half hours baking.

No. 3, salt a pint of meal, wet with one quart milk, sweeten and put into a strong cloth, brass or bell metal vessel, stone or earthen pot, secure from wet and boil 12 hours.

“No. 3″ is clearly the most Anglicized version in the manner of preparation, which looks like a steamed English pudding, and an extremely heavy and unpleasant one at that.  But, all of the eggs, milk, and butter in the other versions are clearly contributions from English agriculture and foodways.  You’ll notice too that Mrs. Simmons is much more telegraphic in her delivery than was Mrs. Carter–she seems to presume more familiarity with ingredients and techniques.  (And I have no idea what “q. l” means–do any of you?)  Next, we have several recipes for transforming winter squashes into puddings and tarts (pp. 27-28):

A Crookneck, or Winter Squash Pudding.

Core, boil, and skin a good squash, and bruize it well; take 6 large apples, pared, cored, and stewed tender, mix together; add 6 or 7 spoonsful of dry bread or biscuit, rendered fine as meal, half pint milk or cream, 2 spoons of rose-water, 2 do. wine, 5 or 6 eggs beaten and strained, nutmeg, salt and sugar to your taste, one spoon flour, beat all smartly together, bake.

The above is a good receipt for Pompkins, Potatoes, or Yams, adding more moistening or milk and rose-water, and to the two latter a few black or Lisbon currants, or dry whortleberries scattered in, will make it better.

Immediately following the above recipie, we finally get to pumpkin pies!  From p. 28:


No. 1, one quart stewed and strained, 3 pints cream, 9 beaten eggs, sugar, mace, nutmeg and ginger, laid into paste No. 7 or 3, and with a dough spur, cross and chequer it, and baked in dishes three quarters of an hour.

No. 2, One quart of milk, one pint pompkin, 4 eggs, molasses, allspice and ginger in a crust, bake 1 hour.

You’ll note that No. 1 doesn’t call for sugar, so it’s more like a quiche with a lattice crust.  (And check out those amounts–a quart of pumpkin, 6 cups of cream, and 9 eggs!–surely enough to make 3 or 4 9-inch pies.)  No. 2 is sweetened with molasses and spiced like modern pumpkin pies, and so is probably closer to what most of you will be eating on Thursday, although the ratio of milk to pumpkin makes it look rather milkier than pumpkiny.


November 24th 2008
Thanksgiving blogging, part I: “this depends intirely on the goodness of your fire.”

Posted under American history & women's history

I’m hosting Thanksgiving this year chez Historiann, so I’ve been flipping through Susannah Carter’s The Frugal Housewife, or Complete Woman Cook (1772) again.  (I just can’t stay away!  You remember that she was the source for “an Umble Pie” and–unsuccessfully–for clues about the origins of the Ritz Cracker Mock Apple Pie)  I thought she had some interesting recipes to share for that centerpiece of the Thanksgiving table, the turkey.  First, the general instructions (p. 8):

To Roast a Turkey, Goose, Duck, Fowl, &c.

When you roast a turkey, goose, fowl, or chicken, lay them down to a good fire.  Singe them clean with white paper, baste them with butter, and dust on some flour.  As to time, a large turkey will take an hour and twenty minutes; a middling one, a full hour; a full-grown goose, if young an hour; a large fowl three quarters of an hour; a middling one half an hour, and a small chicken twenty minutes; but this depends intirely on the goodness of your fire.

I wouldn’t go with those roasting times on Thursday.  I have a feeling that wild and domestic fowl were a lot scrawnier than our agribusiness-produced, hormonally-pumped, grain-fed, fully plucked monster turkeys and chickens today.  Even the so-called “free range” beasties must be much, much larger than those in Mrs. Carter’s day.  Eighty minutes to cook a turkey?  But, as she reminds us well, “this depends intirely on the goodness of your fire.”  Since your turkey today will likely be in the oven much longer, you can probably skip the flour, which presumably was meant to aid browning.

Before you start your fire, you’ll probably want to consider the stuffing.  Mrs. Carter offers two, the first being a kind of veal sausage stuffing (p. 9):

A turkey, when roasted, is generally stuffed in the craw with force-meat; or the following stuffing:  Take a pound of veal, as much grated bread, half a pound of suet cut and beat very fine, a little parsley, with a small matter of thyme, or savory, two cloves, half a nutmeg grated, a tea-spoon full of shred lemon peel, a little pepper and salt, and the yolks of two eggs.

That doesn’t sound half bad, although I would cook the sausage (the veal, suet, and spices) before mixing it with the bread, egg yolks, and herbs.  With this bird, Mrs. Carter recommends “Good gravy in a dish; and either bread, onion, or oyster sauce in a bason.”  The second recommended stuffing features liver and chestnuts (pp. 9-10):

A Fowl, or Turkey, roasted with Chestnuts:

Roast a quarter of a hundred of chestnuts, and peel them; save out eight or ten, the rest bruise in a mortar, with the liver of the fowl, a quarter of a pound of ham well-pounded, sweet herbs and parsley chopped fine:  Season it with mace, nutmeg, pepper and salt:  Mix all these together, and put them into the belly of  your fowl:  Spit it, and tie the neck and vent close.  For sauce, take the rest of the chestnuts, cut them in pieces, and put them into a strong gravy, with a glass of white wine:  Thicken with a piece of butter rolled into flour.  Pour the sauce in the dish and garnish with orange and water-cresses.

Modern cooks know that it’s healthier and more efficient to cook your stuffing as a side-dish of “dressing” separately–actually stuffing the bird slows cooking time considerably, not to mention the whole salmonella issue (raw eggs not cooking quite enough inside the cavity of a turkey?  No, thanks!)  So, this year, please bake the dressing on the side during the last hour or so of turkey roasting, and to get that extra-good and unctuous turkey flavor, spoon some turkey pan juices on the pan of dressing as it bakes.  (There’s always plenty of them if you’re basting with butter as Mrs. Carter recommends!)

What are you making for Thanksgiving?  (Reservations?  May I join you?)  Just kidding!

Stay tuned for Thanksgiving blogging, part II:  pumpkin pies and Indian puddings!


November 23rd 2008
Like a Virgin

Posted under childhood & European history & Gender & women's history

Not this virgin.

Not this virgin.

Inspired by this post at Feminist Law Professors, headlined “French Court Rules Virginity is Not an “Essential Quality in a Bride,” I’ve been thinking a lot about virgins today, and the concept of virginity.  (The linked story is about a French Muslim man who sought and obtained an annulment from his bride because she wasn’t a virgin.  An appeals court ruled that “a lie that does not concern an essential quality is not a valid basis for annulling a marriage.”)  I don’t think “virginity” is a reasonable or meaningful category for describing people’s lives today for a number of reasons, mostly feminist and pro-gay ones, but I have questions about the history and etymology of the word virgin and the state of being a virgin, which is to say, “virginity.”

A little background here:  I have a young friend in a Catholic Kindergarten who is learning the “Hail Mary” (“blessed art thou among virgins women”–sorry about the error) and singing songs like Silent Night (“round yon virgin, mother and child…”), so a word previously not in hir lexicon is coming up on a regular–nay, daily–basis.  So I’m expecting (and dreading) the question, “what’s a virgin?”  My canned answer is “an unmarried woman,” and I’ll hope that flies.  This eventuality has led me to ponder the roots of the word “virgin” and of the concept of “virginity.”  Was “unmarried woman” the original meaning of “virgin,” or was the original meaning connected to a specific kind of (lack of) sexual experience?  When did the marital and sexual connotations first collide in this word?  Was it ever a term applied equally to men and women?

That's the ticket

Happily, a number of medieval studies types read and comment here, so I’m calling on you all specifically:  Tom at Romantoes, New Kid on the Hallway, Notorious Ph.D., Squadratomagico, and Another Damned Medievalist at Blogenspiel, can you help?  (Anyone else I’ve missed, please chime in–I’m just listing the people you can track back to a blog somewhere.)  Am I totally off-base in thinking this has something to do with Latin, Norman French, or Anglo-Saxon?  Are there any interesting titles you’d recommend that discuss the history and etymology of this word?

One other observation:  Catholic education introduces a lot more violent, sexual, and otherwise very adult themes into a child’s life than a happily sanitized modern secular education.  This is not a complaint–I frankly think that children are patronized too often, and then they’re subject to commercial exploitation by sexualized and violent images and products without having the tools they need to process and deal with them appropriately.  Are any of you familiar with St. Michael’s Prayer?  It’s really a trip to hear a 5-year old recite it before tucking into a meal!


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